I have read about a product design course in some college where the final exam requires the students to design a clock alarm radio. Create a usable, understandable set of controls and surfaces to keep and display time, set an alarm, tune the radio, and adjust volume and tone. Everybody has this kind of radio. I would like to see the students’ efforts, year after year. In the real world, among radios you can actually buy and use, all together now, I’ll bet we can come up with a hundred design flaws.
An “A” student did not design mine. To turn the radio on or off or to the alarm mode and to switch from AM to FM, mine has little sliding switches set in opposite sides of the flat housing. It takes two hands to use these switches. The radio is so light, if you try to move a switch with one hand, you’ll push the radio off the nightstand. The buttons on top? Generally okay, except for one mystery. If you use the “sleep” setting for an hour’s play, there is no way to turn the radio off except the “snooze” button, as I discovered completely by accident — and, once employed, the snooze button trumps everything. If you want to turn the radio back on, you have to unplug it and plug it back in.
DID SOMEBODY ACTUALLY DESIGN THIS? How many times have you asked yourself that?
A kitchen timer, simple flat plastic box about two inches square, with a clamp and a magnet on the back of the clamp, the better to affix it to handy spots in the kitchen. Set the timer, stick it to the side of the refrigerator, start cooking. Timer goes off, reach to punch the beeper to “off,” and the whole thing falls off the refrigerator. Why? Because the on/off button sits to one side of the housing, and the magnet, on the back hasp of the clamp, sits in the middle, so when you push the button with one finger, you rock the magnet loose.
To the category of “too light or unstable to use with one hand” let me add my son’s electric pencil sharpener, which has fallen off the bookshelf any number of times. Why not put the hole for the pencil on top?
Then there are the things that are too clever by half. Somebody tried, but somebody didn’t really think. My wife bought a wastebasket for the bathroom with a nifty lid. Push down on the lid, a clasp releases, and a spring slowly lifts the lid by itself. Except that when you want to throw something away, you want to throw it away now, not three seconds from now as you wait for the lid’s lordly ascent. That device did not survive first contact with our house cleaners. I have since installed a drawer pull in the middle of it.
WE GOT INTO FLORIDA LATE ONE NIGHT and rented a new Mercury Grand Marquis. I figured out all the controls in short order (except how to tune the radio; give me a damn knob, would you?) and set off in the dark along one of the Sunshine State’s fast, straight, crowded, dark highways.
And rapidly found myself blinded by following traffic. The outside rear view mirrors on modern cars sit far too high. Compare it for yourself. The tops of my ‘92 Cadillac’s outside mirrors rest six inches below the driver’s shoulder. For a clear example of the new design (which probably owes to side airbags and other safety concerns), look at the new Chrysler 300, with its hulking macho body and squashed-looking passenger compartment. The 300’s mirrors, and big ones they are, sit at or above shoulder level.
At night, you pay one penalty, as following cars’ headlights glare straight into your eyes. But at any time, the mirrors themselves block huge sections of oncoming traffic from your view. By contrast, my Caddie’s mirrors block only an insignificant section of pavement in the lower part of the driver’s gaze.
You can excuse faults in low-cost items like bedside clock radios or kitchen timers, but somebody really did get paid, and paid a lot, to design Chrysler’s and Mercury’s mirrors. To block the road. To blind the driver at night.
There are worse faults in cars. I once knew a rich Hollywood type who owned a Lamborghini. He had to open the driver’s side door and hoist himself out in order to see to back up.
SHALL WE COUNT? Table knives that fall off plates, no matter how carefully placed. A Teflon fondue pot set supplied with steel serving forks. A potato ricer that isn’t strong enough to squeeze a boiled potato, or, similarly, a parmesan cheese grater that comes apart when you use it. The way window screens fasten on these days, with those damnably weak potmetal garters at the bottom. Selector dials on digital cameras with settings described in icons so tiny and obscure they cannot be understood.
I have in mind a design for a clock radio that employs one button and a single display window. It’d be a little slow and a little deliberate. Wonder what kind of grade I’d get?